“Peoria” is a name lodged in the American vocabulary and imagination. First, the name is kind of funny — though not as funny as “Poughkeepsie” or “Schenectady”, those names beloved of comedians. Second, people tend to know the question “Will it play in Peoria?” That question means: “Will it be embraced by the great, broad middle of America?”

In the 2008 presidential cycle, Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, tried for the GOP nomination. About ten years later, he would be a darling of the American right. But at the time, he was known as a socially liberal, immigrant-lovin’ urbanite. We at National Review put him on our cover, in drag. (The photo we used was genuine. He looked a little like Carol Channing.) Our cover read: “But Will It Play in Peoria? The Drag on Rudy Giuliani’s Presidential Prospects.”

Peoria is in the middle of Illinois, pretty much. When you approach it from Indianapolis, as I have, you go through Champaign, the home of the University of Illinois. George F. Will grew up in Champaign. (His father was a professor of philosophy at the university.) People in the area were “marinated in the spirit and reality of Abraham Lincoln”, Will told me in a podcast. Yes, this is Lincoln country. Reagan country, too. Before you get to Peoria, you go through Eureka, where the Gipper went to college. Peoria has a Twainy feel as well. In fact, I stay in the Mark Twain Hotel. You can almost see Huck and Tom and Becky down by the river. Yet it’s not the Mississippi but the Illinois River. Nevertheless, it, too, is rollin’ along, or lazin’ along. The American Countess, a glorious, long, wedding-cakey riverboat, is pulling out now. At the courthouse, there is a statue of Lincoln. For good measure, there is also a mural, showing that homely, handsome face (Lincoln’s). In 1854, he delivered a speech in this town, opposing the Kansas-Nebraska Act and maintaining that slavery should disappear from American life.

Down by the river, there is a memorial to Dan Fogelberg, the singer-songwriter: He was born and raised in Peoria. He went to Woodruff High School, where his dad was the band director. Later, Dan would write “Leader of the Band” with his dad in mind. Richard Pryor was born and raised here, too. Unidyllically. His mom was a prostitute, his grandmother a madam. He grew up in the whorehouse. This upbringing was hellish, not colorful or cute. Who else? Betty Friedan the feminist was from Peoria — born Bettye Naomi Goldstein. This year marks her centennial. In coming weeks, the PSO will play a concert in her honor. The concert is dubbed “HerStory: A Tribute to Betty Friedan”. The PSO? Not the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra but the Peoria Symphony Orchestra — one of the oldest such institutions in America. The Pittsburgh orchestra was founded in 1895; the one in Peoria, only two years later. It is today conducted by George Stelluto, a very capable product of Juilliard, Yale and elsewhere.

Downtown is rather forlorn, with not many people around. So it is in cities — in downtowns — all over America. The population here is about 115,000. For more than a hundred years, Caterpillar, Inc. — famous for making construction equipment — was headquartered in Peoria. But, in 2017, the company decamped to Deerfield, a northern suburb of Chicago. My eye catches a beautiful old stone church. I wonder what denomination it belongs to. I learn that the place is now a “Microbrewery and Eatery”. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to see churches converted to secular uses. Honestly, I would rather they were razed.

My friend Kevin Murphy — pianist, conductor, opera coach — is playing a concerto with the PSO. He and his wife, Heidi, are here with their children (three of the four). Heidi —more formally Heidi Grant Murphy — is one of the leading lyric sopranos of our time. Kevin’s dad, Don, is part of the entourage in Peoria, too. Don Murphy has many stories, of which I will retell a musical one: once, in the 1950s, he did a soundcheck for Helen Traubel, the Wagnerian soprano. She wanted him to go way up in the rafters. If she sang without a mic, could he hear her? Boy, could he. That was in Syracuse, New York, in the War Memorial. Did Traubel ever play Peoria? Google doesn’t tell me, but I bet she did — she was a Midwestern girl, a St. Louis native. Kevin Murphy plays Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, K. 503, with Maestro Stelluto and the PSO, and a fine performance it is. I look forward to coming back to this classic place, Peoria, for musical and other reasons.

Jay Nordlinger is a senior editor of National Review and the music critic of the New Criterion. This article was originally published in The Spectator’s December 2021 World edition.